My Kodály Journey – Part I

I wrote this article for the British Kodály Academy Newsletter (Spring 2011)

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As a primary school teacher I have always tried to put a lot of music into what I do. Over the years this has included playing guitar and singing with my classes, teaching ‘cello, running a computer music club, leading the school choir and so on. In November 2008 I moved to Forest Gate in Newham, and on my first evening there I read a copy of The Newham Recorder.

There was a half page article in there about Gallions Primary School – ‘A School Transformed by Music’ or words to that effect – in the south of the borough. I mentioned it to the head teacher at my own school, and a few months later in March 2009 my school paid for me to attend a course at Gallions entitled ‘Making Music Happen’. I saw a delightful Reception music lesson with much use of silk scarves and the teacher playing the clarinet. We were also told about some of the ideas behind the school’s ethos, including the Kodály methodology. Most of all I was struck by the tranquillity of the place and the quiet confidence of the pupils. This impression was all the more striking given the school’s recent history. Music, it seemed, really had turned this school around. Along with a lot of hard work!
Moving forward one year to June 2010, a new head teacher took over my school and much re-structuring followed, creating a lot of uncertainty. Miraculously, out of all this, the new head teacher told me that she is ‘passionate about the arts’ and asked me if I would like to teach all the music in the school! I agreed in no uncertain terms to take on this challenge! That evening I googled ‘Kodály’ and came across the British Kodály Academy. I immediately enrolled on the Summer School and signed up for the Springboard Certificate course. This would involve working towards a ‘Professional Practice Certificate (HE1) in the Kodály Concept of Music Education’ to give it its full title.
The Summer School was an absolute delight from beginning to end. On the very first evening people were singing and laughing and having a lot of fun. And so it was every evening. My Solfège classes were taken by Lucinda Geoghegan – talk about learning as pure fun! Every morning I sang bass in the choir with Lenke Igó. I had never sung in solfa before, but it was fun thinking on my feet, and I was bowled over by the passion of our conductor. While I was on the course I was reading Howard Goodall’s ‘Big Bangs: Five Musical Revolutions’, which gave me a few insights that came in handy when I found myself sitting next to Lenke at lunch one day. I realised then that this course, along with further studies, could be a bit like the music degree I never did, and I decided to join the BKA there and then. I also bought a lot of books, including Lois Choksy’s ‘Kodaly Method I’ and the first three ‘Jolly Music’ books.
Alongside this I was meeting a lot of other music teachers. Primary music leaders in my local borough very rarely meet each other, and to be able to compare notes with other music teachers was really good for my confidence. After the course I attended the BKA’s AGM in September 2010. There aren’t many AGM’s where you get to sing Guido d’Arezzo’s ‘Ut Queant Laxis’! And even better than this I met Bernadette Thompson, the visionary head teacher who was largely responsible for ‘turning round’ Gallions Primary School. She encouraged me to attend David Vinden’s ‘Elementary Musicianship’ course. I signed up immediately and have been attending these classes every Thursday since then. It’s hard to express how much I enjoy these classes. I am finally getting to grips with the fundamentals of the European music tradition – something I have always wanted to do. Singing and enjoyment are at the heart of these classes too, just like at the Summer School. I am beginning to feel like I’ve found something I can really get into.
Meanwhile I have begun my mission of turning the school where I teach into a place that I hope local families will think of as ‘the musical school’. At the moment the backbone of what I am doing is the ‘Jolly Music’ series of books. I use these with all classes from the Nursery through to Year 3, and I am developing my own lesson plans, based on Kodály, with the older year groups. It has been a lot of fun, and the children have responded with great enthusiasm. There is a wonderful sense of empowerment for the older children as they begin to recognise how to name rhythms and note names and how to write them down. All the children are building up a repertoire of songs and accompanying games – the songs from Lucinda Geoghegan’s ‘Songs and Games for Middle Years’ are especially popular. I realise now that, unlike most subjects at school, when it comes to music it is quite normal for children to teach one another in the playground. This is possible when the teaching is based on songs and singing. Again the word ‘empowerment’ comes to mind. There is real ownership when the children know these songs for themselves: no written music, no instrument, just beautiful singing and a simple joyfulness.
With a Year 1 class recently I wanted to concentrate on the quality of the singing and to do so by drawing the children’s attention to the sound they were making. As I listened to the class I heard a bird singing outside the open window. The class stopped singing, and we listened to that little bird. After a while I said to the class “let’s sing like that little bird”. The focus of listening to that bird combined with the hush involved in doing so brought a heightened awareness to the room. As the class began to sing again they did so much more carefully and quietly and far more musically. It was an extraordinary transformation.
A year ago I knew nothing about Kodály and the Hungarian approach to music education. When I read the online profiles of advanced Kodály teachers I realise I still know practically nothing, but I am keen to learn more. I want to continue my studies because I have an instinctive faith in the philosophy. It feels solid as a rock compared to the continually shifting sands of English state education.